Narcissistic Personality Disorder

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Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Willa Cather's title "Paul's Case" (1905) invites us to ponder the question, "What exactly is Paul's Case?" Cather immediately informs us that Paul's case is mysterious. His own father is "perplexed" about his son's behavior, and the school faculty, who meet with Paul to discuss his recent suspension, speak of Paul with such "rancor" and "aggrieved ness" that it is obvious that Paul's is "not a usual case" (Cather, 1991, p. 221). At first, it appears that Paul is, perhaps, simply filled with the arrogance that adolescence sometimes brings, but, as Cather continues with Paul's case history, we learn that his problem is more deeply rooted. Paul's problem drives him to take his own life, and simple adolescent arrogance does not lead to such drastic measures. My diagnosis is that Paul suffers from what contemporary psychiatry calls a "narcissistic personality disorder." The term, "narcissism" comes, of course, from the Greek myth of Narcissus. Freud, who drew upon mythology to assist in his conceptual formulations of psychopathology, formally introduced the term narcissism into the psychiatric literature in his 1914 paper On Narcissism. Freud, (1914) states that, "narcissism is a borderline concept that should be used as key to everything" (p. 85). The term received recognition within the early psychoanalytic intelligentsia and has been historically rooted in the psychoanalytic tradition. Since Freud first introduced the term, it has been used to help explain disorders ranging from the mildly neurotic to the psychotic. According to Freud's theory the origins of this disorder would have derived from internal factors. He believed that humans are "bad" and it does not have to do with the environment. He would have most likely agreed that it may start of in the unconscious and then somehow moves to the conscious when a child becomes fixed in a particular stage of his or her life. Presently, the American Psychiatric Association uses the term to define a personality and outlines the diagnostic criteria for the narcissistic personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.4th edition, Text Revised (DSM-IV). To receive the diagnosis of a narcissistic personality disorder, a person must meet five of nine criteria: Paul case appears to be a prototypical meeting all nine criteria. Amazingly, it seems that Willa Cather by instinct set forth the diagnostic criteria for a narcissistic personality disorder about ninety years before scientists reached a firm, empirically validated consensus.

Though not as physically striking--nor as outwardly arrogant--as Narcissus, Paul attracts attention and begs for analysis. A number of critics have set forth interesting analyses of Paul's inner world. Michael N. Salda presents an argument that on the night that Paul arrives home late and retreats to the basement to avoid his father, he never actually leaves the basement; the scenes that follow, according to Salda, occur only in Paul's imagination (Salda, 1992). Paying somewhat less attention to Paul's grandiose fantasy life, Edward Pitcher presents Paul as the embodiment of a "Faustian temperament" in conflict with the "capitalist machine" (Pitcher, 1991, p. 550). More closely aligned with the forthcoming analysis of Paul is Philip Page's description of Paul in terms of a "metaphor of theatricality" (Page, 1991, 553). Page's idea of Paul as an actor living out an inflated drama in his imagination is quite consistent with the narcissistic personality. Although each of these critics offers us a glimpse into Paul's inner world, I think that through the lens of the DSM-IV, we can gather a more comprehensive picture of Paul's case and a better understanding of why both he and Narcissus experience such a tragic fate. The DSM-IV states that the essential features of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder are a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and...
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